Nobody can claim that the case of the West Memphis Three has been ignored by the documentary film community. Just a few years after teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were convicted of murdering three younger boys in a small Arkansas town, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) made a strong case that they’d been railroaded on the basis of their interest in occult literature and heavy metal. Two follow-up docs, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000) and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011), depicted the lengthy battle to get the WM3 released. Given that wealth of footage covering nearly two decades, is there any real point to West of Memphis, a new documentary that aims to condense the entire saga into a single streamlined narrative?
If you’ve already seen the Paradise Lost trilogy, the answer is no. For those who haven’t, however, and are only curious enough to watch one movie, West of Memphis does a reasonably good job of covering the essentials, even if it inevitably loses a great deal of the regional flavor that made the first Paradise Lost in particular much more than a mere story of injustice. Director Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) gets access to some of the celebrities, including Lord of the Rings director (and West of Memphis producer) Peter Jackson, who offered their time and money in an effort to get the WM3 a retrial. And while Purgatory, which premiered just before the WM3 were finally released, had to be content with a hasty epilogue, West of Memphis provides real catharsis for those who’d waited years for vindication.